The magical run to the NCAA Final Four by the UMBC’s men’s soccer team this past fall got two of our alumni – Brian Hodges ’07 and ’10, M.A., who played varsity basketball, and Miguel Calderon ’12, who played varsity soccer – thinking about why the university has been able to cultivate scholar athletes who excel in the classroom as well.

Top-flight college athletics are woven deeply into the American experience. For generations, fans have cheered their alma maters (or even schools that they adopt as favorites) on to victory. But the student-athletes have been and should be the main beneficiaries of collegiate sports. They build their bodies and minds, and acquire the discipline and drive necessary to compete at the Division I level and in life itself.

That experience for student-athletes is changing, however, as the elite schools in U.S. college sports have focused more on the business of athletics. For instance, the cost of competing at the highest levels of college football has exploded in recent decades. The stakes have become so high that in August the so-called Big Five conferences – SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific-12 – persuaded the NCAA Division I board of directors to grant them autonomy to enact changes in how college athletics is governed by a simple majority amongst themselves.

Universities who want to stay in the contest often must take radical steps – cutting teams in their athletics program, or building new facilities in tough economic times for students and institutions – just to keep up. And some are starting to decide they can’t stay in the game at all.

As former student-athletes at UMBC, we’ve been given the chance to take our own path by going to a school that celebrates both academic and athletic achievements. Student-athletes at UMBC expect to take their academic success just as seriously, if not more seriously, than the success they achieve on the field of competition. It’s a mindset – a choice we make initially by coming to UMBC that eventually becomes a part of who we are.

This past fall, our men’s soccer team advanced to the Final Four in college soccer, winning four victories on the road against schools from larger conferences. Billy Heavner, the standout goalkeeper of UMBC’s soccer team, carried a 4.0 GPA in financial economics on a squad that just received a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Team Academic Awards for posting a cumulative team grade point average of 3.0 or better. And this is not unusual – about half of our athletes are on the Dean’s List.

UMBC doesn’t have a football team, and that decision has been a sore spot with some of our alumni and students throughout our history. They argued that the sport was essential to building school spirit and traditions such as Homecoming. But what we have given up traveling our distinctive path is far exceeded by the values we embrace as a campus by making that choice. Many of our student-athletes who excel academically go on to graduate and professional schools and outstanding careers. The relationship between excellence in academics and excellence in athletics at UMBC is something that makes our university so unique and special. It is the sort of relationship that only exists at some of the most privileged schools in the country.

The UMBC approach to college athletics has also inspired the university to recognize intercollegiate sports as a key element of student life and invest more money in the athletics program in recent years, including approval of a new Events Center that will open in 2017. The building will not only be a home for many of our athletics teams, but will also allow us to bring our spring commencement ceremonies back to campus.

Part of what we learned at UMBC is that student-athletes are part of a vibrant campus community. We attended a school that cheered us on not only when we took the field or the court, but also as we balanced our schoolwork and other responsibilities.

Every student-athlete dreams of playing his or her sport professionally one day. But UMBC taught us that taking every opportunity to excel – in the classroom and in athletic competition – is the key to our future success. UMBC is a place where we learned to put athletics in perspective.

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